When Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance
appeared in 2001, it gave PS2 gamers a more action-heavy version of the popular PC RPG franchise that they were apparently craving for. Some time has passed and now there are three games that have been based on the Snowblind engine originally developed for Dark Alliance
The best of the bunch is not the sequel, Dark Alliance II, or the futuristic Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, but the next game by Snowblind, Champions of Norrath: Realms of Everquest. With new developments to keep pushing the genre along, it's clear that we have a new champion. Beyond just being a solid title in its own right, it's also moved to the online world with some mixed results.
The story is simple and barely needs going over. A demon is causing tons of havoc in Norrath and to stop him it will require fighting goblins, orcs, vampires, giant ants and the demon himself. While there are a couple of interesting moments in the game, that I don't want to ruin by writing here, for the most part this is a haphazard tale that provides an excuse to fight through several different areas and kill plenty of different beasts and that's where Champions of Norrath excels. Without a doubt, this is a big fetch-quest.
The basic gameplay has not changed very much here from Dark Alliance and sticks in the same vein of killing all the monsters and looting their corpses for better items. What makes all the difference is the increased level of detail in, well, everything. The developers went ballistic with the number of items to discover (with more than 10,000 of them randomly generating), 45 levels to explore and 50 areas. Every time I started to get tired of fighting one creature or in an area, the game moved on in a different direction. The most drastic change is the ability for four people to play in an online game. More on that later.
- Video Review: Read first, then watch this!
Compared to several games in this style of game, there are several little things that make this refreshing. Obviously, it's a hack-'n-slash collect-a-thon. Snowblind has not gone and re-invented the wheel. But like the best games of the genre Champions of Norrath
is addicting in the very best of ways. You instantly get sucked in, collecting, upgrading your characters, and searching out hidden areas. The search for cool new spells, weapons and armor becomes so ridiculously involving that the actual combat merely becomes a means for more collecting more stuff.
There are a healthy amount of mission quests. While they're generally pretty obvious, several of them, such as the quest to penetrate a Goblin field peppered with catapults (along with a few sub-bosses) added just the right punch. One of my favorite features is the different tactics that enemies require to get past them. There are wizards who have the ability to revive other enemies. Since any enemy can be revived, this required luring enemies away from each other to avoid being revived or running about to kill all the wizards first. This gets trickier with wizards reviving wizards and it becomes frantic whack-a-mole action. Where Dark Alliance II featured mostly enemies that walk toward you at the same speed, Champions of Norrath has monsters that run, jump around, or have timed attacks that you need to adapt to. Getting further in the game definitely requires some adaptive gameplay and that makes it all the more appealing.
The spell system here has been tweaked a little and now features a skill tree and an intuitive spell book system. The skill tree gives certain spells prerequisites and gives players the option to take one path of specializing or another. With 20 different levels to each skill, only a few different skills can become highly specialized and it pays to find complementary skills to create better strategies. The spell book encourages this even further by being able to hot key two different spells at once on the triangle and circle buttons. With this in place, it pays to try out different spells and figure out techniques for the different situations that come up.
Another spell development is the aura spell. Instead of a group spell being cast on the whole group and then everyone can wander around independently, here the spells project an aura around the caster and anyone who is within that aura will be affected. So even though players can wander around independently in an online multiplayer scenario, this is a way to create some group dynamics that encourage more teamwork. By creating piggybacking effects like this, there are even more reasons to play with others.
The menus are a pleasure to work in. The ability to upgrade in a group is handled well. In a multiplayer game, players will be alerted that their cohorts are entering into upgrade mode because a word bubble appears, indicating to protect them from enemy fire. This works the same off- or online. When you're sorting through the newest booty in your menus screens, the screen flashes red to indicate an enemy is hammering on you. (But hopefully your friend is there doing his job!)
While most of the system is similar to Dark Alliance's, a few changes have been added. Where Dark Alliance I and II both used a recall for quick round-trips back to town, Champions of Norrath offers gate Scrolls. By using up a Gate Scroll, the player or group will zip back to the merchant in the current hub of action for that act. After selling the loot and buying new potions or items, they must either already already have a Gate Scroll of buy one to return to the former level.
To make up for this, portals connect different areas. They work well enough, and they're located in pretty much all of the obvious locations: Near save points and right before boss fights. Portals are activated by finding them the hard way, walking the whole way and killing everything in between. Once a portal is activated, it can be used to go to any other activated portal.
Weapon collection is executed in two ways. A large numbers of items are dropped by monsters in Champions of Norrath, but most of them are useless. After clearing a level, there will be a path of weapons and armor. Most of these have a poor status like "cracked" or "ruined" and can be discarded pretty quickly, and there are some juggling issues with trying to figure out what to hold and what to drop. Since going back to the store to clear up some free space means leaving the action for a few minutes, it's easier to just hold on to something valuable until the next portal is found.
In the beginning of the game, the portals are close to major fights so it's easy to restock, but later on in the game, this isn't as true. There were a few times that I was down to a handful of health potions and then I had to fight a major character. There are always save points before the battles, but it didn't make sense to avoid having a portal when by that point the level had been cleared out and the hike back from the store didn't add anything to the game.
Bringing Champions of Norrath online is excellent, but it's also got some down points, so it's a little bit of a mixed bag. While it's been a lot of fun to play online and the USB headset voice support makes it even better, there are plenty of growing pains involved here. Overall, it's a superb way to get together with friends for a planned evening of fighting that's part of a friendly campaign, but it gets more problematic in other situations.
Champions of Norrath definitely follows in footsteps of games such as Diablo, but it employs much of the social aspects of Gauntlet, injecting a group experience to it that no single player game can offer. You can play online (or offline with a Multitap) with one to four players, and without a doubt the single player experience is excellent. But by adding in numerous other people to the campaign, the experience is absolutely captivating, surprising and spontaneous. It becomes a real adventure. Experience points are shared amongst the group, with a little more of the points going to the particular slayer of any said boss. And players can trade weapons if they choose to.
But there are some hiccups. The issue of character importing and exporting is not cleanly taken care of here. Importing a character into a multiplayer game, offline or online, takes a character from a saved game and places it into the one in progress. After playing together and advancing the character, saving the online game creates a save with that character in that location.
This is fine if you're the host since you start the online game from where your save game is, but if you're joining it's a little awkward. If you import into an online game and then save that game, your character is in that location in the save for going back to offline. If you're not careful, you can easily create a new save where your character is a few levels ahead or behind of the previous location. This can be solved by joining another multiplayer game where your old save was and saving there. To stay in the same location in the offline game, it's possible to import the advanced save character into the old save game and then delete the original. It creates a system of rudimentary character hacking as an essential part of the game.
Another reason to play in a pre-arranged game with friends is the clumsy lobby system, or lack thereof. There is no lobby and no buddy list. There's just the possibility of hosting a game or joining one, making the games a bit of a crap shoot in terms of joining up with people that you'll end up talking to and playing with for a couple hours or so. It's much easier to set up a private game and continue a game that you started with others. It appears that SOE wants people to sort out their online stuff the in a laissez faire, hands-off fashion. So, players are expected to learn a bit about the game's online trials through experimentation. For learned players, this rudimentary system certainly will leave them wanting, and with newbies, it could end up being less of a blessing and more or a curse. So really, unless you have some pre-made arrangements made with some folks, an online campaign is a bit of a crapshoot.
The Champions of Norrath disc is a dual-layer DVD that's packed to the gills with artwork and the results are stunning. With five classes and a male/female choice for each, there are 10 different character models. Each one has its own unique set of armor, and of course, the armor is always changing, and thus so is the look of your character. Beyond that, there's a large variety of environments and textures that help to make the world of Champions of Norrath so much more intricate and interesting.
In single-player, it's possible to zoom up close to see the detail in the environments and the characters. While there, it's easy to see that every different aspect has been improved upon Dark Alliance. Since playing multiplayer offline forces the view into an eye-in-the-sky perspective, retaining the close-up view is a convincing argument for playing multiplayer games online. That way everyone can get their own detailed view of the action. With plenty of atmospheric details livening up the screen, this is one show you're not going to want to miss.
So much detail comes with a price; there is the occasional graphic pop-in and a strange set of areas featuring slowdown. With the angled views, the distance is not always handled well and there can be some disconcerting pop-in as large chunks of land suddenly appear on screen. Usually, this is pretty minor, but in some later levels, like the Plane of Sky, it's a more dramatic problem. Slowdown is much more common and noticeable and tends to happen while running and turning the camera at the same time in dungeons. While this is very obvious and distracting, it never gets out of hand, and what's better, it never actually affects the action or combat itself.
The music in Champions of Norrath has plenty of orchestral flourishes and swells that pump up the action. It's a little over-the-top at times. Sometimes it makes you feel like you should be doing something really important right away, but it's best when it provides a comfortable background atmosphere.
The voices are another story. Where the music fits the scenes like a glove, the voices stick out like a sore thumb. Not only do a lot of the accents sound a little off, the characters almost have nothing good to say. For some reason, the shadow knight kept making snide comments about the areas he was walking through. It was barely amusing the first time and I found myself reaching for the volume control to keep his voice out of my head. While some humorous asides did make me smile, many of the jokes missed their targets.
The sound effects effectively provide information about a battle without even looking at the screen. It's easy to tell if you're hitting armor, bone, or flesh. With so much going on in the screen, these well-done audio effects complement the action and make the battle even more fun.
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